Strengthening women’s agency after drought in Ethiopia

Tess Dico-Young Disasters, Gender, General, Humanitarian

People in Ethiopia’s Somali region have had their lives turned upside down by three years of drought. Oxfam’s research has found that there are several ways in which aid agencies can better meet the needs of women and girls and promote gender equality.

Over the past three years the rains have been sparse in the Ethiopian Somali region. This year’s drought has been referred to by the locals with a number of names and one of them is Sima, the drought that made everyone, equally destitute.

In our assessment of the gendered effects of the drought we too found that it has had a devastating impact. ‘I used to own one hundred sheep and goats now I’m left with only one’ said a woman in Doolo.

‘Before the drought, I was a man who could afford to buy anything and I was regarded by the community as a rich person, but now I have nothing’, said a man in Doolo.

Bearing the stress and ways of coping

‘I continuously count the number of livestock that I’ve lost. My mind is not right’
The impact of the drought on livelihoods has led to psychological stress, with both men and women experiencing mental breakdown and some attempted suicides. ‘I continuously count the number of livestock that I’ve lost. My mind is not right’, said an elderly woman in an IDP camp in Gurdume in Jarar zone. ‘Men are usually responsible for providing food for the household. Losing all or most of their livestock and left with nothing, a few men have gone mad,’ a local chairperson reported.

We found that people are coping in different ways and family separation and displacement of people is common. Men and boys are more likely to move further away: either in search of water and pasture for their livestock, (camels, goats etc), or to towns and cities in search of paid work. Women tend to cope by reducing meals and food intake and moving to IDP camps with their children.

Social norms are aggravating the malnutrition of women… traditionally they are among the ones who eat last
When household food supplies are depleted the most vulnerable, including the elderly, infants, the sick, and pregnant and breastfeeding women, suffer more. Social norms are aggravating the malnutrition of women specifically, because traditionally they are deprioritized in food consumption and they are among the ones who eat last.

Some drought affected communities told Oxfam that incidents of child marriage have increased as a survival strategy. Intimate partner violence is also perceived to have increased as tensions have become heightened within households.

Women and girls are traveling long distances in search of water (five hours in some cases) and the loss of cart animals for water transport has increased their burden. We found that both boys and girls have dropped out of school as they spend more time collecting water or in search of water and pasture.

Maternal health services, have also become even harder to reach for women with no means of paying for transportation.

The needs, responses and way forward

Many agencies have scaled up their operations over the last few years, providing food in IDP camps, cash transfers and cash for work interventions, as well as water trucking, constructing sanitation facilities and distributing non-food items. While these interventions have saved lives and met basic needs, more holistic solutions are needed going forward.

Among the immediate needs are the provision of adequate sex segregated sanitation facilities
Among the immediate needs are the provision of adequate sex segregated sanitation facilities that provide privacy and security, bathing and menstrual hygiene management places and materials for women and girls in IDP camps. While more dignity kits are needed for women and girls, adequate consultation is also required to identify their specific needs.

Cash distribution and cash for work programmes need to be improved to ensure that they take gender into account, recognise the care work undertaken by women and target vulnerable female headed households. Support should be combined with awareness raising to improve women’s decision making roles.

Immediate interventions should be combined with community sensitization about gender based violence, while building the capacity of service providers to respond to the risks of violence and support survivors.

To reduce the risk of violence and to assist in recovery and resilience water distribution points should be moved closer to communities (within 1.5 km radius). Investment in more sustainable water supply infrastructures, such as deep boreholes is also needed. This would increase women’s livelihood options and reduce their work load.

Ultimately strengthening women’s agency is essential to ensure recovery and resilience that benefits women and men equally. In the medium and long-term, interventions are needed that advance women’s leadership. Supporting women’s collective efforts on various livelihood, and water and sanitation interventions, developing leadership and life skills, supporting women in non-traditional gender roles and addressing the unpaid care work that affects women’s participation in economic and political life outside of the house, will go a long way towards reducing the gender gap.

Download the report: “Sima”: The “Great Equalizer” Pushes Everyone to Destitution: Gender analysis for drought response in Ethiopia – Somali Region


Tess Dico-Young


Bethel Terefe